Makenzie Olson has lived her food story.
Now, sharing that story has earned her $2,000 towards the next stage of her budding agricultural career.
The Tisdale resident was one of four recipients of the 2020 Saskatchewan Agriculture Scholarship.
Olson was one of three to win the $2,000 scholarship, joining Marci LeBlanc of Estevan and Isobel Kinash of Wishart. Imperial’s Mackenzie Van Damme received the $4,000 grand prize scholarship.
To qualify, each student submitted an essay telling their food story. The funds will go towards pursuing an agriculture-related education.
For Olson, that means heading to Lakeland College to attend the Animal Science Technology program, majoring in beef.
It will be the next stage in a journey she started when she was just ten.
“When I was ten years old I got into the Speckle Park business and bought my first female,” she said.
“I’ve been growing my purebred herd ever since then and I plan to keep those with me for the rest of my life.”
Olson grew up on a mixed farm that grows oilseeds and grains along with beef cattle.
But it was the cattle side of the operation that really appealed to Olson.
“I grew up on a farm and really loved the agricultural atmosphere, so I knew that I definitely needed to go into something like that when I was older to be happy,” she said.
“I like the idea of getting hands-on, working with the cattle. I feel a connection with the calves when I get to help them right from when they hit the ground to when we sent them off to the market. I like to be a part of all of that.”
It was 4-H that really spurred Olson’s knowledge and passion for beef. That’s when she was allowed to start raising her own herd.
“I didn’t want a Simmental, Hereford, Angus-based commercial herd like my dad, so I was dead set on finding something better,” Olson wrote in her winning essay submission.
“I started my research on what breed I wanted, and one unique breed stood out — Speckle Park. This breed is praised for being well-marbled, which adds tenderness, something all consumers adore. Speckle Park also has a thick layer of outer fat, which means less waste for the consumer.”
Olson said that while Angus is classified as the higher rank due to the old grading system, in her experience Speckle Park meat has always received higher praise than other breeds.
“Studies have shown that consumers want flavour, tenderness, and less fat, and they trust that the producers will strive to meet those requests,” Olson wrote.
“I am confident that with my breed choice, I have the potential to meet and exceed those expectations, but the care of the animals also impacts the outcome on the table.”
That’s one of the keys to both Olson’s submission and her desire to tell her food story — emphasizing to consumers that producers care and showing them the work that goes into raising cattle or growing crops.
“It’s one of my top priorities. I don’t want to see my animals hurting,” she said.
“I want to see them happy and healthy. I care about them so much that if they’re sick, it hurts me to see them. As long as they’re healthy they’re going to be producing good beef.”
Olson believes that a “happy cow is a healthy cow.” That also means better beef.
“The well-being of the cattle should be every rancher’s number one priority,” Olson wrote.
“Everything from the food they eat to the place they rest impacts the animals’ well being.”
That close care for the animals also makes consumers, who are more concerned with animal treatment than ever before, feel comfortable buying the product.
One thing Olson wants the public to understand, though is that antibiotics, when used correctly, are vital to maintaining a healthy herd.
“Recently consumers have been interested in “antibiotic and hormone-free beef”, while this seems appealing, it is inhumane for ranchers,” Olson wrote.
“Just like humans, cattle need antibiotics to recover from illnesses; without antibiotics, they would die. Ranchers can’t stand by and watch the animals suffer, so they need to use the medicines, this is what the consumer doesn’t see. We follow the direction stated on the antibiotics to make sure that the meat is safe for human consumption.”
As for hormones, while Olson said they don’t give their cattle any, cows naturally produce their own, like other plants and animals.
“There is no such thing as ‘hormone-free beef,’” she wrote.
Growing up on the farm gave Olson the privilege of seeing what goes into the food we eat. It’s a privilege, she said, that she wishes all could have.
“Whether it be a grain farmer working exhausting shifts to take the cereal crops off or it is a rancher putting blood, sweat and tears into making sure that their cattle are tended to with the utmost respect,” she wrote, “I have had the privilege to witness both of these in a very personal way my whole life.”
But even in a food-producing province like Saskatchewan, what goes into our food is still a mystery to most.
“The people on the highways see the cattle on the pastures and they see the tractors in the fields, but lots of them don’t understand the work that actually goes into the animals,” she said.
“They see the work but they don’t actually know what we’re doing. Just letting then know would benefit them.”
That’s why Olson said, producers sharing their food story is so vital.
“We really need to start telling the consumer and informing then what actually goes on,” she said.
“Get beef producers to get out there and start having a voice instead of just what the consumers are hearing from others — get actual beef producers out there telling their stories. I think they’d appreciate the meat that gets put on their table if they get to learn the whole story about it. I think it would create a deeper appreciation and understanding.”
Read Olson’s full essay below:
Many people in today’s society don’t fully understand where their food originates. Consumers don’t realize that their menu doesn’t just appear in the grocery store; their food has a story. Whether it be a grain farmer working exhausting shifts to take the cereal crops off or it is a rancher putting blood, sweat and tears into making sure that their cattle are tended to with the utmost respect. I have had the privilege to witness both of these in a very personal way my whole life. Growing up on a mixed farm allows me to see the story behind our oils and breads, along with our burgers and steaks. I have taken a significant interest in the cattle side of our operation, even starting my own herd. In being a producer, I feel vast amounts of pressure from the consumers. They don’t see what I do with my cattle, but they trust that by the time the meat hits their table, it will be safely sourced and healthy to eat. I feel it is my responsibility as a producer to produce good quality carcasses, treat my cattle with care, and keep their health as my number one concern. All three of these factors impact the meat at your supper table.
Many consumers do not know that the quality of meat varies based on the breed of cattle. Once I joined 4-H, I was allowed to start raising my own herd. I didn’t want a Simmental, Hereford, Angus based commercial herd like my Dad, so I was dead set on finding something better. I started my research on what breed I wanted, and one unique breed stood out, Speckle Park. This breed is praised for being well-marbled, which adds tenderness, something all consumers adore. Speckle Park also has a thin layer of outer fat, which means less waste for the consumer. Consumers believe that Angus is the top breed for meat due to the old grading system, which classified “Angus” as the highest rank. Through 4-H, I have sold many steers that my buyers have then butchered for themselves. I have sold an array of breeds from Simmental, to Clubby, to Speckle Park. What I have found is that the Speckle Park meat always receives higher praise than the other breeds. Studies have shown that consumers want flavor, tenderness, and less fat, and they trust that the producers will strive to meet those requests. I am confident that with my breed choice, I have the potential to meet and exceed those expectations, but the care of the animals also impacts the outcome on the table.
The well-being of the cattle should be every rancher’s number one priority. Many components affect the cattle’s well-being; a happy cow is a healthy cow. Everything from the food they eat to the place they rest impacts the animals well being. It takes precise planning and analysis to construct a proper diet for the cattle. On our farm, we take time to calculate the exact amounts each pen should be eating based on their age, gestation length, condition and weather. We feed oat silage with added 18% silage enhancer pellet from our local co-op throughout the winter, and in the summer they graze wild grass. We also feed grass hay year-round. Along with feeding, the bedding provided for cattle impacts their well-being. They need a dry, sheltered area to rest. We spread barley straw around windbreaks through the cold months and ensure the cattle have dry land and trees in the pasture. Our penning arrangements are in a maintained, quiet area, which allows for less stress on the cattle. In today’s day and age, there are more and more consumers who are concerned with the animal treatment, so we ensure we treat our cattle with respect so that the consumer feels comfortable buying the product. Cattle can be easily stressed, which means their handling requires additional attention. We ensure all of our animals have human exposure, so it is not a shock when they require handling. When being handled, we embrace the herd mentality in cattle to move them around, which reduces stress. Our chute system is set up to smoothly allow for cattle to navigate through following one behind the other, the best technique to reduce stress. The chute system is often used to enforce our herd health program.
As I have previously stated, a happy cow is a healthy cow. Veterinarians frequently are helping ranchers create, update, and modify a herd health program designed specifically for their operation. These programs often include preventative and treatment drugs. Now that these drugs need to be purchased and approved by a licensed veterinarian, the herd health programs across the country are becoming more precise. Our herd health program includes administering Scourgaurd to bred cows before they calve to prevent calf sickness, Anthrax vaccine to cows before they go out to summer pastures and Ivermectin all cattle in the fall to treat and control parasites. Recently consumers have been interested in “antibiotic and hormone-free beef”, while this seems appealing, it is inhumane for ranchers. Just like humans, cattle need antibiotics to recover from illnesses; without antibiotics, they would die. Ranchers can’t stand by and watch the animals suffer, so they need to use the medicines, this is what the consumer doesn’t see. We follow the direction stated on the antibiotics to make sure that the meat is safe for human consumption. We do not give our cattle any hormones, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any. Cows naturally produce their own hormones, just like all other plants and animals, meaning there is no such thing as “hormone-free beef”.
Consumer thoughts and ideologies impact all producers. Producers want to be able to satisfy the wants of a consumer, so they adapt aspects of their operation to suit that. The two don’t have personal connections; producers ship it out so that consumers can pick up the result. I sincerely wish that all consumers could have the privilege that I have had my whole life of watching their food’s story. It creates more profound respect and fulfillment when sitting down at the table to enjoy a locally-sourced meal.